What Is Unschooling?
Here's a brief history, as I understand it, of how John Holt coined this word and concept when he published it in Growing Without Schooling for the first time.
"Unschooled" is an old word. The Oxford English Dictionary cites its first use in 1594 and defines it:
1. Uneducated, untaught. b.) Not educated at school; not made to attend school.
2. Untrained, undisciplined. b.) Not affected or made artificial by education; natural, spontaneous.
3. Not provided with a school.
Holt probably wanted to bring out the second, less popular meaning of the word (if he used a dictionary at all for coming up with it!), to indicate that being unschooled meant you learned in natural, spontaneous ways, as well as the third meaning (no school). However, just as Illich's use of the word "deschooling" has led people who hear the word without reading his book (Deschooling Society) to conclude Illich wanted to abolish all schools, so has Holt's use of the word "unschooling" led people to conclude, without reading Holt's work, that unschooling will create uneducated people. Indeed, as a writer who sought simplicity and clarity in his word choices, Holt moved away from using "unschooling" in his writing and work over the years and used "homeschooling" as the more generally understood term for learning without going to school. In the 1981 first edition of Teach Your Own, Holt approved this index entry: "Unschooling: see Home Schooling."
Unschooling is actually defined by Holt in GWS #2: "GWS will say ''unschooling" when we mean taking children
out of school, and "deschooling" when we mean changing the laws to
make schools non-compulsory and to take away from them their power to
grade , rank , and label people, i.e., to make lasting , official, public judgments about them." However, Holt's precise definition often gets conflated with his general philosophy about how children learn and what adults can do to best help them, causing people to forget that Holt deliberately defined unschooling very inclusively.
I've been asked to define unschooling since 1981. The simple answer I learned from John is unschooling is NOT school. John Holt was tuned into popular culture and during the 1970s there was a popular television commercial for a soft drink called 7-Up. The marketing hook for 7-Up was that it was "The Uncola"—clear to look at, refreshing to the palate—it was NOT a syrupy cola. When John was casting around for words to describe learning without going to school the Uncola campaign was in full swing and it could have influenced him.
Unschooling never caught on as Holt intended the word to, but throughout the next two decades unschooling increasingly became identified as a rubric for all of Holt's ideas and work. In 2003, when I updated Teach Your Own, I attempted a concise definition based on the increased use of the word in media, parenting, and education circles since Holt died in 1985:
This is also known as interest driven, child-led, natural, organic, eclectic, or self-directed learning. Lately, the term "unschooling" has come to be associated with the type of homeschooling that doesn't use a fixed curriculum. When pressed, I define unschooling as allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world, as their parents can comfortably bear. The advantage of this method is that it doesn't require you, the parent, to become someone else—a professional teacher pouring knowledge into child-vessels on a planned basis. Instead you live and learn together, pursuing questions and interests as they arise and using conventional schooling on an "on demand" basis, if at all. This is the way we learn before going to school and the way we learn when we leave school and enter the world of work. So, for instance, a young child's interest in hot rods can lead him to a study of how the engine works (science), how and when the car was built (history and business), who built and designed the car (biography), etc. Certainly these interests can lead to reading texts, taking courses, or doing projects, but the important difference is that these activities were chosen and engaged in freely by the learner. They were not dictated to the learner through curricular mandate to be done at a specific time and place, though parents with a more hands-on approach to unschooling certainly can influence and guide their children's choices.
Unschooling, for lack of a better term (until people start to accept living as part and parcel of learning), is the natural way to learn. However, this does not mean unschoolers do not take traditional classes or use curricular materials when the student, or parents and children together, decide that this is how they want to do it. Learning to read or do quadratic equations are not "natural" processes, but unschoolers nonetheless learn them when it makes sense to them to do so, not because they have reached a certain age or are compelled to do so by arbitrary authority. Therefore it isn't unusual to find unschoolers who are barely eight-years-old studying astronomy or who are ten-years-old and just learning to read.
—From Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling by John Holt and Patrick Farenga
Some unschoolers take exception with my definition because they feel it is confusing and will be used against children by parents who "can't bear" children's actual freedom. I think this is a willful misreading of my intent, which is to show that unschooling does not resemble school learning and that parents and children can learn and grow cooperatively. As Aaron Falbel wrote in The Legacy of John Holt (forthcoming), "John trusted parents to learn from their experience with their children. He didn’t say, “If you’re going to call it unschooling, you’re going to have to do it my way.” He wanted them to figure out what was right for them, for their whole family."
Since Holt first used the word in 1977, unschooling has also been defined by some religious homeschoolers and educators as "child worship," or letting the children run the show, and so on. However, unschooling is not unparenting; freedom to learn is not license to do whatever you want. People find different ways and means to get comfortable with John Holt's ideas about children and learning and no one style of unschooling or parenting defines unschooling, as the following selection of books demonstrates. — PF (updated, 2013)
Homeschooling With Gentleness: A Catholic Discovers Unschooling (2004) by Suzie Andres
Homeschooling Our Children, Unschooling Ourselves (2002) by Alison MacKee
Christian Unschooling (2001) by Terri Brown with Elissa M. Wahl
The Unschooling Handbook by Mary Griffith (1998)
The Teenage Liberation Handbook (1998) by Grace Llewelyn
Real Lives: Eleven Teenagers Who Don't Go To School Tell Their Own Stories (2003) by Grace Llewelyn
Common Questions and Answers About Homeschooling
By John Holt with later additions by Patrick Farenga (This is reprinted from Chapter 3 of Teach Your Own)
NOTE: To learn about the laws and regulations about homeschooling in your state, check with your local or state homeschooling groups as they will likely have the most up-to-date information. You can locate general legal information from this list, and find support with this list; both lists are maintained by Anne Zeiss.—PF
People, especially educators, who hear me [John Holt, 1981] talk about homeschooling, raise certain objections so often that it is worth answering them here.
Since our countries are so large and our people are from so many different kinds of backgrounds (this was said most recently to me by a Canadian) don't we need some kind of social glue to make us stick together, to give us a sense of unity in spite of all our differences, and aren't compulsory public schools the easiest and best places to make this glue?
About needing the glue, he's absolutely right. We do need such a glue, certainly in big diverse countries like the U.S. and Canada, but also in much smaller and more tightly-knit countries, many of whom are also breaking apart under the stresses of modern life.
Right now, the main social glue we seem to have here in the U.S. is hatred of "enemy" countries. Except when briefly united in such hatred, far too many of us see our fellow-citizens, even those of our own color, religion, etc., only as our natural enemies and rightful prey, to do in if we can. Indeed, we insist that this way of looking at other people is actually a virtue, which we name "competition." This outlook may have worked fairly well when our country was young, nearly empty, and rich in natural resources, but not anymore. For our very survival, let alone health and happiness, we need a much stronger and better social glue than this.
Some kinds of community gathering places and activities might help us form this social glue. But not schools - not as long as they also have the job of sorting out the young into winners and losers, and preparing the losers for a lifetime of losing. These two jobs can't be done in the same place at the same time.
People are best able, and perhaps only able, to cross the many barriers of race, class, custom, and belief that divide them when they are able to share experiences that make them feel good. Only from these do they get a stronger sense of their own, and therefore other people's, uniqueness, dignity, and worth. But as long as schools have their present social tasks, they will not be able to give such experiences to most children. In fact, most of what happens in school makes children feel the exact opposite - stupid, incompetent, ashamed. Distrusting and despising themselves, they then try to make themselves feel a little better by finding others whom they can look down on even more - poorer children, children from other races, children who do less well in school.
Even if children do learn in school to despise, fear, and even hate children from other social groups, might they not hate them even more if they did not meet them in school? At least in school they see these other groups as real people. Without school, they would know them only as abstractions, bogeymen. This might sometimes be true, but only of those few children for whom the world outside of school was as dull, painful, humiliating, and threatening as school. Most children who learn without school, or who go only when they want to, grow up with a much stronger sense of their own dignity and worth, and therefore, with much less need to despise and hate others.
The important question, how can people learn to feel a stronger sense of kinship or common humanity with others who are different, is for me best answered by a story about John L. Sullivan, once the heavyweight prize fighting champion of the world. Late one afternoon he and a friend were riding standing up in a crowded New York City streetcar. At one stop, a burly young man got on who had had too much to drink. He swaggered down the center of the car, pushing people out of his way, and as he passed John L., gave him a heavy shove with his shoulder. John L. clutched a strap to keep from falling, but said nothing. As the young man went to the back of the car, John L.'s friend said to him, "Are you going to let him get away with that?." John L. shrugged and said, "Oh, I don't see why not." His friend became very indignant. "You're the heavyweight champion of the world," he said furiously. "You don't have to be so damned polite." To which John L. replied, "The heavyweight champion of the world can afford to be polite."
What we need to pull our countries more together are more people who can afford to be polite, and much more - kind, patient, generous, forgiving, and tolerant, able and willing, not just to stand people different from themselves, but to make an effort to understand them, to see the world through their eyes. These social virtues are not the kind that can be talked or preached or discussed or bribed or threatened into people. They are a kind of surplus, an overflowing, in people who have enough love and respect for themselves and therefore have some left over for others.
Children in public schools are able to meet, and get to know, many children very different from themselves. If they didn't go to public school, how would this happen?
The first part of the answer to this question has to be that it very rarely happens in public schools. Except in very small schools, of which there are few, and which tend to be one-class schools anyway, children in public schools, other than a few top athletes, have very little contact with others different from themselves, and less and less as they rise through the grades. In most large schools the children are tracked, i.e., the college track, the business track, the vocational track. Even within each major track there may be subgroupings. Large schools may often have a half-dozen or more tracks. Students in one track go to one group of classes, students in another track go to others. Very rarely will students from different tracks find themselves in the same class. But—and here is the main point—study after study has shown that these tracks correlate perfectly with family income and social status: the richest or most socially prominent kids in the top track, the next richest in the next, and so on down to the poorest kids in the bottom track.
In theory, children are assigned to these tracks according to their school abilities. In practice, children are put in tracks almost as soon as they enter school, long before they have had time to show what abilities they may have. Once put in a track, few children ever escape from it. A Chicago second grade teacher once told me that in her bottom-track class of poor non-white children were two or three who were exceptionally good at schoolwork. Since they learned, quickly and well, everything she was supposed to be teaching them, she gave them A's. Soon after she had submitted her first grades, the principal called her in, and asked why she had given A's to some of her students. She explained that these children were very bright and had done all the work. He ordered her to lower their grades, saying that if they had been capable of getting A's they wouldn't have been put in the lowest track. But, as she found upon checking, they had been put into this lowest track almost as soon as they had entered school.
Even where the schools do not track children by classes, the teachers are almost certain to track them within their classes. In Freedom and Beyond I gave this example:
An even more horrifying example of the way this discrimination works can be found in the article "Student Social Class and Teacher Expectation: The Self-fulfilling Prophecy in Ghetto Education," by Ray Rist, in the August 1970 issue of the Harvard Educational Review. The kindergarten teacher described, after only eight days of school, and entirely on the basis of appearance, dress, manners, in short, "middle classness", divided her class into three tracks by seating them at three separate tables, which remained fixed for the rest of the year. One of these tables got virtually all of her teaching, attention, and support; the other two were increasingly ignored except when the teacher told them to do something or commented unfavorably on what they did. Worse yet, the children at the favored table were allowed and encouraged to make fun of the children at the other two tables, and to boss them around.
Rist followed these children through three years of school, and reported, first, that these children's first and second grade teachers also tracked by tables within their classes, and secondly, that only one of the children assigned in kindergarten to one of the two bottom tables ever made it later to a favored table. And the odds are very good that most elementary school classes have a kind of caste system in action. Even in small and selective private schools, I found that many of my fellow teachers were quick to label some children "good" and others "bad", often on the basis of appearance, and that children once labeled "bad" found it almost impossible to get that label changed.
Enough has been written about class and racial conflict in schools, above all in high schools, so that I don't want to add much to it here. Where different races are integrated in schools, even after many years, this usually begins to break down around third grade, if not even sooner. From fifth grade on, in their social lives, children are almost completely separated into racial groups, which become more and more hostile as the children grow older. Even in one-race schools, white or nonwhite, there is class separation, class contempt, and class conflict. Few friendships are made across such lines, and the increasing violence in our high schools arises almost entirely from conflicts between such groups.
So the idea that schools mix together in happy groups children from widely differing backgrounds is for the most part simply not true. The question remains, how would children meet other children from different backgrounds if they did not go to school? I don't know. While the numbers of such children remain small, this will be difficult. But as the numbers of such children grow, there will be more places for them to go and more things for them to do that are not based in school. We can certainly hope, and may to some extent be able to arrange, that in these places children from different backgrounds may be more mixed together. Also, people who teach their children at home already tend to think of themselves as something of an extended family, and using the Directory in Growing without Schooling, write each other letters, visit each other when they can, have local meetings, and so on. I hope this will remain true as more working-class and non-white families begin to unschool their children, and it well may; people who feel this kind of affection and trust in their own children tend to feel a strong bond with others who feel the same.
How are we going to prevent parents with narrow and bigoted ideas from passing these on to their children?
The first question we have to answer is, do we have a right to try to prevent it? And even if we think we do, can we?
One of the main differences between a free country and a police state, I always thought, was that in a free country, as long as you obeyed the law, you could believe whatever you liked. Your beliefs were none of the government's business. Far less was it any of the government's business to say that one set of ideas was good and another set bad, or that schools should promote the good and stamp out the bad. Have we given up these principles? And if we haven't, do we really want to? Suppose we decided to give the government the power, through compulsory schools, to promote good ideas and put down bad. To whom would we then give the power to decide which ideas were good and which bad? To legislatures? To state boards of education? To local school boards?
Anyone who thinks seriously about these questions will surely agree that no one in government should have such power. From this it must follow that people have the right not only to believe what they want, but to try to pass their beliefs along to their children. We can't say that some people have this right while others do not. Some will say, but what about people who are prejudiced, bigoted, superstitious? We're surely not going to let people try to make their children believe that some races are superior or that the earth is flat? To which I say, what is the alternative? If we say, as many would like to, that people can tell their children anything they want, as long as it is true, we come back to our first question - who decides what is true? If we agree - as I think and hope we do - that there is no one in government or anywhere else whom we would trust to decide that, then it follows that we can't give schools the right to tell all children that some ideas are true and others are not. Since any school, whether by what it says or what it does, must promote some ideas, it follows that while people who approve of the ideas being taught or promoted in government schools may be glad to send their children there, people who don't approve of those ideas should have some other choice. This is essentially what the U.S. Supreme Court said in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (See Chapter 13 of Teach Your Own).
One of the reasons why growing numbers of people are so passionately opposed to the public schools is that these schools are in fact acting as if someone had explicitly and legally given them the power to promote one set of ideas and to put down others. A fairly small group of people, educational bureaucrats at the state and federal level, who largely control what schools say and do, are more and more using the schools to promote whatever ideas they happen to think will be good for the children, or the country. But we have never formally decided, through any political process, to give the schools such power, far less agreed on what ideas we would like the schools to promote. On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that large majorities of the people strongly dislike many or most of the ideas that most schools promote today.
Even if we all agreed that the schools should try to stamp out narrow and bigoted ideas, we would still have to ask ourselves, does this work? Clearly it doesn't. After all, except for a few rich kids, almost all children in the country have been going to public schools now for several generations. If the schools were as good as they claim at stamping out prejudice, there ought not to be any left. A quick glance at any day's news will show that there is plenty left. In fact, there may well be less support today than ever before for the tolerance and open-mindedness that the schools supposedly promote.
If you don't send your children to school, how are they going to learn to fit into a mass society?
Educators often ask me these two questions in the same meeting, often within a few minutes of each other. Obviously, they cancel each other out. The schools may in fact be able to prepare children to fit into the mass society, which means, among other things, believing what most people believe and liking what most people like. Or they may be able to help children find a set of values with which they could resist and reject at least many of the values of the mass society. But they certainly can't do both.
It seems to be one of the articles of faith of educators that they, and they alone, hold out to the young a vision of higher things. At meetings, they often talk as if they spent much of their time and energy defending children from the corrupt values of the mass media and the television set. Where, but from us, they say, are children going to hear about good books, Shakespeare, culture? We are the only ones who are thinking about what is good for them; everyone else is just trying to exploit them. The fact is, however, that most schools are far more concerned to have children accept the values of mass society than to help them resist them. When school people hear about people teaching their children at home, they almost always say, "But aren't you afraid that your children are going to grow up to be different, outsiders, misfits, unable to adjust to society?" They take it for granted that in order to live reasonably happily, usefully, and successfully in the world you have to be mostly like most other people.
In any case, the schools' efforts to sell children the higher culture seldom work, since they obviously value it so little themselves. In my introduction to Roland Betts's Acting Out (Boston: Little, Brown, 1978), a frightening account of life in New York City's public schools, I wrote:
Our big city schools are largely populated, and will be increasingly populated, by the children of the non-white poor, the youngest members and victims of a sick subculture of a sick society, obsessed by violence and the media-inspired worship of dominance, luxury, and power. This culture, or more accurately, anticulture, has done more harm to its members and victims, has fragmented, degraded, and corrupted them more than centuries of slavery and the most brutal repression were able to do. Every day this anticulture, in the person of the children, invades the schools. If the schools had a true and humane culture of their own, which they really understood, believed in, cared about, and lived by, as did the First Street School some years ago, they might put up a stiff resistance, might even win some of the children over. But since the culture of the school is only a pale and somewhat more timid and genteel version of the culture of the street outside... nothing changes. Far from being able to woo the children away from greed, envy, and violence, the schools cannot even protect them against each other.
A friend of mine, in his early thirties, is a journalist, generally liberal, and sympathetic to the young. Not long ago, he visited a number of high schools in the affluent suburbs of Los Angeles where he grew up, talking to the students, trying to find out what they seemed most interested in and cared most about. I asked eagerly what he had found. After a silence, he said, "They seem to be mostly interested in money, sex, and drugs." He was clearly as unhappy to say it as I was to hear it. We would both like to have found out that these favored young people wanted to do something to make a better world, as many did fifteen years ago. But we should not be surprised that young people should be most interested in the things that most interest their elders.
Nor is it fair to blame the schools, as many people do, for the interest of the young in these things. Attacked from all sides, the schools say plaintively, "But we didn't invent these values." Quite right; they didn't. What we can and must say is that to whatever extent the schools have tried to combat these values, they have almost totally failed. In any case, to return once more to my first point, they can hardly claim that they are at one and the same time teaching children to accept and also to resist these dominant values of our commercial culture.
If children are taught at home, won't they miss the valuable social life of the school?
If there were no other reason for wanting to keep kids out of school, the social life would be reason enough. In all but a very few of the schools I have taught in, visited, or know anything about, the social life of the children is mean-spirited, competitive, exclusive, status-seeking, snobbish, full of talk about who went to whose birthday party and who got-what Christmas presents and who got how many Valentine cards and who is talking to so-and-so and who is not. Even in the first grade, classes soon divide into leaders (energetic and - often deservedly - popular kids), their bands of followers, and other outsiders who are pointedly excluded from these groups.
I remember my sister saying of one of her children, then five, that she never knew her to do anything really mean or silly until she went away to school - a nice school, by the way, in a nice small town.
Jud Jerome, writer, poet, former professor at Antioch, wrote about his son, Topher, meeting this so-called "social life" in a free school run by a commune:
... Though we were glad he was happy and enjoying himself (in school), we were also sad as we watched him deteriorate from a person into a kid under peer influence in school. It was much like what we saw happening when he was in kindergarten. There are certain kinds of childishness which it seems most people accept as being natural, something children have to go through, something which it is, indeed, a shame to deny them. Silliness, self-indulgence, random rebelliousness, secretiveness, cruelty to other children, clubbishness, addiction to toys, possessions, junk, spending money, purchased entertainment, exploitation of adults to pay attention, take them places, amuse them, do things with them - all these things seem to me quite unnecessary, not "normal" at all (note: except in the sense of being common), and just as disgusting in children as they are in adults. And while they develop as a result of peer influence, I believe this is only, and specifically, because children are thrown together in school and develop these means, as prisoners develop the means of passing dull time and tormenting authorities to cope with an oppressive situation. The richer the families the children come from, the worse these traits seem to be. Two years of school and Topher would probably have regressed two years in emotional development. I am not sure of that, of course, and it was not because of that fear that we pulled him out, but we saw enough of what happened to him in a school situation not to regret pulling him out...
One of our readers gave us a vivid description of what must be a very typical school experience:
My mother tells me that after the first day in kindergarten I told her that I didn't need to go to school anymore because I knew everything already. Great arrogance? Not really. I knew how to be quiet, how to listen to children's stories, and how to sing. I wanted to learn about the adult world, but was restricted to a world which adults believed children wanted. My great pre-school enthusiasm died an early death . . .
This reader's experience is surely not unusual. When I was nine, I was in a public elementary school, in a class in which almost all the boys were bigger and older than I was, most of them from working-class Italian or Polish families. One by one, the toughest ones first, then the others, more or less in order of toughness, beat me up at recess, punched me until they knocked me down and/or made me cry. Once a boy had beaten me up, he rarely bothered to do it again. There didn't seem to me to be much malice in it; it was as if this had to be done in order to find my proper place in the class. Finally everyone had beaten me except a boy named Henry. One day the bigger boys hemmed us in and told us that we had to fight to find who was the biggest sissy in the sixth grade. Henry and I said we didn't want to fight. They said if we didn't, they would beat up both of us. So for a while Henry and I circled around, swinging wildly at each other, the bigger boys laughing and urging us on. Nothing happened for some time, until one of my wild swings hit Henry's nose. It began to bleed, Henry began to cry, and so did I. But the bigger boys were satisfied; they declared that Henry was now the official biggest sissy in the class.
A teacher writes:
On Friday I was reading GWS and intrigued with it as usual. I'm especially interested in the "social life" aspect of schools and the damage it causes. This morning I asked my third graders, "Do you feel that in our school kids are nice, kind to each other?"
When I point out to people that the social life of most schools and classrooms is mean-spirited, status-oriented, competitive, and snobbish, I am always astonished by their response. Not one person of the hundreds with whom I've discussed this has yet said to me that the social life at school is kindly, generous, supporting, democratic, friendly, loving, or good for children. No, without exception, when I condemn the social life of school, people say, "But that's what the children are going to meet in Real Life."
The "peer groups" into which we force children have many other powerful and harmful effects. Every now and then, in the subway or some public place, I see young people, perhaps twelve or thirteen years old, sometimes even as young as ten, smoking cigarettes. It is a comic and pitiful sight. It is also an ordeal. The smoke tastes awful. Children have sensitive taste buds, and that smoke must taste even worse to them than to most nonsmoking adults, which is saying a lot. They have to struggle not to choke, not to cough, maybe even not to get sick. Why do they do it? Because "all the other kids" are doing it, or soon will be, and they have to stay ahead of them, or at least not fall behind. In short, wanting to smoke, or feeling one has to smoke whether one wants to or not, is one of the many fringe benefits of that great "social life" at school that people talk about.
I feel sorry for all the children who think they have to smoke, and even sorrier for any nonsmoking parents who may desperately wish they could persuade them not to. If the children have lived in the peer group long enough to become enslaved to it, addicted to it - we might call them "peer group junkies" - then they are going to smoke, and do anything and everything else the peer group does. If Mom and Pop make a fuss, then they will lie about it and do it behind their backs. The evidence on this is clear. In some age groups, fewer people are smoking. But more children are smoking every year, especially girls, and they start earlier.
The same is true of drinking. We hear more and more about drinking, drunkenness, and alcoholism among the young. Some states have tried in recent years to deal with the problem by raising the minimum drinking age. It doesn't seem to have helped; if anything, the problem only gets worse. One news story sticks in my mind. One night last summer, in a town near Boston, four high school girls, all about sixteen or seventeen, were killed and another seriously injured in an auto accident. Earlier in the evening, they had loaded up their small car with beer and several kinds of liquor and had gone out for an evening of driving and drinking. By the time of the accident, all were drunk. The one survivor was later quoted by the papers as saying, from her bed in the hospital, "I didn't think there was anything wrong with what we were doing; all the kids around here do it."
Of course, children who spend almost all their time in groups of other people their own age, shut out of society's serious work and concerns, with almost no contact with any adults except child-watchers, are going to feel that what "all the other kids" are doing is the right, the best, the only thing to do.
How are we going to prevent children being taught by "unqualified" teachers?
First of all, to know what is meant by "qualified", we have to know what is meant by quality. We could hardly agree on who was or was not a good painter if we did not to a large extent agree on what was or was not a good painting. The question asked above assumes that since educators agree on and understand correctly what is meant by good teaching, they are able to make sound judgments about who is or is not a good teacher. But the fact is that educators do not understand or agree about what makes good teaching. The dismal record of the schools is proof enough of this. Still further proof is that, when charged in court with negligence (see the section "A Doubtful Claim" in Chapter 14 of Teach Your Own), educators defend themselves by saying (with the approval of the courts) that they cannot be judged guilty of not having done what should have been done, because no one knows what should have been done. This may be so. But it clearly follows that people who don't know what should be done can hardly judge who is or is not competent to do it.
In practice, educators who worry about "unqualified" people teaching their own children almost always define "qualified" to mean teachers trained in schools of education and holding teaching certificates. They assume that to teach children involves a host of mysterious skills that can be learned only in schools of education, and that are in fact taught there; that people who have this training teach much better than those who do not; and indeed that people who have not had this training are not competent to teach at all.
None of these assumptions are true.
Human beings have been sharing information and skills, and passing along to their children whatever they knew, for about a million years now. Along the way they have built some very complicated and highly skilled societies. During all those years there were very few teachers in the sense of people whose only work was teaching others what they knew. And until very recently there were no people at all who were trained in teaching, as such. People always understood, sensibly enough, that before you could teach something you had to know it yourself. But only very recently did human beings get the extraordinary notion that in order to be able to teach what you knew you had to spend years being taught how to teach.
To the extent that teaching involves and requires some real skills, these have long been well understood.
They are no mystery.
Teaching skills are among the many commonsense things about dealing with other people that - unless we are mistaught - we learn just by living. In any community people have always known that if you wanted to find out how to get somewhere or do something, some people were much better to ask than others. For a long, long time, people who were good at sharing what they knew have realized certain things: (1) to help people learn something, you must first understand what they already know; (2) showing people how to do something is better than telling them, and letting them do it themselves is best of all; (3) you mustn't tell or show too much at once, since people digest new ideas slowly and must feel secure with new skills or knowledge before they are ready for more; (4) you must give people as much time as they want and need to absorb what you have shown or told them; (5) instead of testing their understanding with questions you must let them show how much or how little they understand by the questions they ask you; (6) you must not get impatient or angry when people don't understand; (7) scaring people only blocks learning, and so on. These are clearly not things that one has to spend three years talking about.
And in fact these are not what schools of education talk about. They give very little thought to the act of teaching itself—helping another person find something out, or answering that person's questions. What they spend most of their time doing is preparing their students to work in the strange world of schools—which, in all fairness, is what the students want to find out: how to get a teaching job and keep it. This means learning how to speak the school's language (teeny little ideas blown up into great big words), how to do all the things schools want teachers to do, how to fill out its endless forms and papers, and how to make the endless judgments it likes to make about students. Above all else, education students are taught to think that what they know is extremely important and that they are the only ones who know it.
As for the idea that certified teachers teach better than uncertified, or that uncertified teachers cannot teach at all, there is not a shred of evidence to support it, and a great deal of evidence against it. One indication is that our most selective, demanding, and successful private schools have among their teachers hardly any, if indeed any at all, who went to teacher training schools and got their degrees in education. Few such schools would even consider hiring a teacher who had only such training and such a degree. How does it happen that the richest and most powerful people in the country, the ones most able to choose what they want for their children, so regularly choose not to have them taught by trained and certified teachers? One might almost count it among the major benefits of being rich that you are able to avoid having your children taught by such teachers.
In this connection, the following story from the Philadelphia Inquirer, November 18, 1979, may be of interest:
. . . Rev. Peder Bloom, Assistant Headmaster of Doane Academy at St. Mary's Hall, an independent Episcopalian school founded in 1837, sees not only a larger, but a more varied clientele applying.
"Any number" of parents are both working to pay tuition bills, he says, and presently the biggest single occupational parent group is public school administrators [Author's emphasis], according to private school administrators. It used to be doctors; now they are second . . .
When a district court in Kentucky challenged the state board of education to show evidence that certified teachers were better than uncertified, the board was unable to produce (in the judge's words) "a scintilla of evidence" to that effect. The same thing happened more recently in a Michigan court. It is very unlikely that any other state boards would be able to do so.
In the state of Alaska, hundreds or perhaps thousands of homesteading families live many miles from the nearest town, or even road. The only way they can get in and out of their homes is by plane. Since the state cannot provide schools for these families, or transport their children to and from existing schools, it very sensibly has a correspondence school of its own which mails school materials to these families, who then teach their children at home. Nobody seems to worry very much about whether these families are "qualified", and no one has yet brought forth any evidence that home-taught children in Alaska do less well in their studies than school-taught children, there or in other states. For that matter, many states in the Lower 48 have laws saying that if children live more than so many miles from the nearest school, or bus route to a school, they don't have to go to school. It would be interesting to find out how many such children there are, and what provisions these states make for their education, and how well these children do in their schoolwork.
Perhaps the leading correspondence school for school-aged children is the Calvert Institute of Baltimore, Maryland. It has been in business for a long time, and for all that time most school districts - I know of no exceptions - have been willing to accept a year of study under Calvert as equal to a year of study in school. Indeed, this assurance that Calvert-taught children would not fall behind has been part of what Calvert offered and sold its customers and clients. These have been, for the most part, American families living overseas - missionaries, military or diplomatic people, people working in foreign offices of American firms, etc. A recent Calvert ad said they have had over three hundred thousand customers. Clearly a very large number of parents have taught and are teaching their children at home, without these children falling behind. But very few of these parents can have been certified teachers.
Years ago I read that one or more inner-city schools had tried the experiment of letting fifth graders teach first graders to read. They found, first, that the first graders learned faster than similar first-graders taught by trained teachers, and secondly, that the fifth graders who were teaching them—many or most of whom had not been good readers themselves—also improved a great deal in their reading. These schools apparently did these experiments in desperation. It is easy to see why they have not been widely repeated. Even in those schools that are willing to allow "paraprofessional" adults, i.e., people without teachers' certificates, in their classrooms, the regular teachers almost always insist that these paraprofessionals not be allowed to do any teaching. But poor countries have found in mass literacy programs that almost anyone who can read can teach anyone else who wants to learn.
I found in my own classes, as in others I have since observed where children are allowed to talk to each other and to help each other with schoolwork, that many children were very good at teaching each other. There were many reasons for this. Even though I did my best to convince them that ignorance was no shame, they felt much freer to confess ignorance and confusion to each other than to me, since they knew that they knew little and wrongly thought that I knew almost everything. Also, they did not have to fear that their friends might give them a bad grade. I had told them that I did not believe in grades, and I think they believed me. But they understood, as I did, that this had little to do with reality; both the school and their parents demanded grades, and I had to give them. Some of them, who really liked me, may have feared that after struggling to teach them something I would be disappointed if they didn't learn it. Indeed this was true, and though I tried not to be disappointed or at least not to show that I was, I never really succeeded. They wanted to please me, and knew when they hadn't.
Learning from each other, they didn't have to worry about this. A child teaching another is not disappointed if the other does not understand or learn, since teaching is not his main work and he is not worried about whether he is or is not a good teacher. He may be exasperated, may even say, "Come on, dummy, pay attention, what's the matter with you?" Since children tend to be direct and blunt with each other anyway, this probably won't bother the learner. If it does, he can say so. Either the other will be more tactful, since he rightly values their friendship more than the effectiveness of his teaching, or the learner will find another helper. And this is another and important reason why children are good at teaching each other. Both child-teacher and child-learner know that this teacher-learner relationship is temporary, much less important than their friendship, in which they meet as equals. This temporary relationship will go on only as long as they are both satisfied with it. The child-teacher doesn't have to teach the other, and the child-learner doesn't have to learn from the other. Since they both come to the relationship freely and by their own choice, they are truly equal partners in it.
I want to stress very strongly that the fact that their continuing relationship as friends is more important than their temporary relationship as learner and teacher is above all else what makes this temporary relationship work. There is an old rule in medicine (not always obeyed): "First, do no harm." In other words, in treating patients, make sure you do not injure them. The rule is just as true for teaching. Above all else, be sure that in your eagerness to make them learn, you do not frighten, offend, insult, or humiliate those you are teaching. Teachers of animals, whether dogs, dolphins, circus animals, or whatever, understand that very well—it is the first rule in their book. It is only among teachers of human beings that many do not understand and even hotly deny this rule.
It is because they understand this rule, if not in words at least in their hearts, that the kind of parents who teach their own children are likely to do it better than anyone else. Such people do not knowingly hurt their children. When they see that something they are doing is hurting their child, they stop, no matter how good may have been their reasons for doing it. They take seriously any signals of pain and distress that their children give them. Of course, the distress signals that children make when we try too hard to teach them something are quite different from the signals they make when something hurts them. Instead of saying "Ow!" they say, "I don't get it," or "This is crazy." It took me years, teaching in classrooms, to learn what those signals were, and still longer to understand how I was causing the distress. But parents teaching at home are in a much better position to learn these distress signals than a classroom teacher. They are not distracted by the problems of managing a class, they know the children better, and their spoken and unspoken languages, and they care about them more. Also, as I have said elsewhere, they can try things out to see what works, and drop whatever does not. Since they control their experience, they can learn more from it.
This is not to say that all families who try to teach their own children will learn to do it well. Some may not. But such families are likely to find homeschooling so unpleasant that they will be glad to give it up, the children most of all. A homeschooling mother wrote me that when, simply out of fear of the schools, she began to give her children a lot of conventional schoolwork, they said, "Look, Mom, if we're going to have to spend all our time doing this school junk, we'd rather do it in school." Quite right. If you are going to have to spend your days doing busywork to relieve adult anxieties, better do it in school, where you only have one-thirtieth of the teacher's anxieties, rather than at home, where you have all of your parent's.
We can sum up very quickly what people need to teach their own children. First of all, they have to like them, enjoy their company, their physical presence, their energy, foolishness, and passion. They have to enjoy all their talk and questions, and enjoy equally trying to answer those questions. They have to think of their children as friends, indeed very close friends, have to feel happier when they are near and miss them when they are away. They have to trust them as people, respect their fragile dignity, treat them with courtesy, take them seriously. They have to feel in their own hearts some of their children's wonder, curiosity, and excitement about the world. And they have to have enough confidence in themselves, skepticism about experts, and willingness to be different from most people, to take on themselves the responsibility for their children's learning. But that is about all that parents need. Perhaps only a minority of parents have these qualities. Certainly some have more than others. Many will gain more as they know their children better; most of the people who have been teaching their children at home say that it has made them like them more, not less. In any case, these are not qualities that can be taught or learned in a school, or measured with a test, or certified with a piece of paper.
Are there then no requirements of schooling or learning? Isn't there some minimum that people ought to know? Could people teach their children who had never been to school themselves? Even if they didn't know how to read and write? I think even then they probably could. A woman told me not long ago, after a meeting, that though she had a degree from Radcliffe and a Ph.D. from Harvard, the most helpful, influential, and important of all the teachers she had ever had was her mother, who had come to this country as an immigrant and who was illiterate not only here but in the country of her birth. And while working as a consultant to a program to teach adult illiterates to read, I heard about one of the students, a middle-aged woman who had for years concealed her illiteracy from her college graduate husband and her children, whom she used to regularly help with their schoolwork. For many years I told her story to show how cleverly people can bluff and fake. Only recently did I realize that this woman's children would not have come to her year after year for help on their schoolwork unless her help had been helpful. She was in short not just a clever bluffer, but a very good teacher.
I don't expect many illiterate parents to ask me how they can take their children out of school and teach them at home. But if any do, I will say, "I don't think that just because you have not yet learned to read and write means that you can't do a better job of helping your children learn about the world than the schools. But one of the things you are going to have to do in order to help them is learn to read and write. It is easy, if you really want to do it, and once you get out of your head the idea that you can't do it. If any of your children can read and write, they can help you learn. If none of them can read and write, you can learn together. But it is important that you learn. In the first place, if you don't, and the schools find out, there is no way in the world that they or the courts are going to allow you to teach your children at home. In the second place, if you don't know how to read and write, your children are likely to feel that reading and writing are not useful and interesting, or else that they are very difficult, neither of which is true. So learning to read and write will have to be one of your first tasks."
How am I going to teach my child six hours a day?
Who's teaching him six hours a day right now?
As a child, I went to the "best" schools, some public, most private. I was a good student, the kind that teachers like to talk to. And it was a rare day indeed in my schooling when I got fifteen minutes of teaching, that is, of concerned and thoughtful adult talk about something that I found interesting, puzzling, or important. Over the whole of my schooling, the average was probably closer to fifteen minutes a week. For most children in most schools, it is much less than that. Many poor, nonwhite, or unusual kids never get any real teaching at all in their entire schooling. When teachers speak to them, it is only to command, correct, warn, threaten, or blame.
Anyway, children don't need, don't want, and couldn't stand six hours of teaching a day, even if parents wanted to do that much. To help them find out about the world doesn't take that much adult input. Most of what they need, parents have been giving them since they were born. As I have said, they need access. They need a chance, sometimes, for honest, serious, unhurried talk; or sometimes, for joking, play, and foolishness; or sometimes, for tenderness, sympathy, and comfort. They need, much of the time, to share your life, or at least, not to feel shut out of it; in short, to go some of the places you go, to see and do some of the things that interest you, to get to know some of your friends, to find out what you did when you were little and before they were born. They need to have their questions answered, or at least heard and attended to (if you don't know, say "I don't know.") They need to know more and more adults whose main work in life is not taking care of kids. They need some friends their own age, but not dozens of them; two or three, at most half a dozen, is as many real friends as any child can have at one time. Perhaps above all, they need a lot of privacy, solitude, calm times when there's nothing to do.
Schools rarely provide any of these, and even if radically changed, never could provide most of them. But the average parent, family, circle of friends, neighborhood, and community can and do provide all of these things, perhaps not as well as they once did or might again, but well enough. People do not need a Ph.D. or some kind of certificate to help their children find their way into the world.
How are children going to learn what they need to know?
About this, a parent wrote:
. . . During his early years, my wife and I and a couple of friends taught him all he wanted to know, and if we didn't know it, which usually was the case, it was even better, for we all learned together. Example: at 7, he saw the periodic table of elements, wanted to learn atoms and chemistry and physics. I had forgotten how to balance an equation, but I went out and bought a college textbook on the subject, a history of discovery of the elements, and some model atoms, and in the next month we went off into a tangent of learning in which somehow we both learned college-level science. He has never returned to the subject, but to this day retains every bit of it because it came at a moment in development and fantasy that was meaningful to him [author's emphasis].
Of course, a child may not know what he may need to know in ten years (who does?), but he knows, and much better than anyone else, what he wants and needs to know right now, what his mind is ready and hungry for. If we help him, or just allow him, to learn that, he will remember it, use it, build on it. If we try to make him learn something else that we think is more important, the chances are that he won't learn it, or will learn very little of it, that he will soon forget most of what he learned, and—what is worst of all—will before long lose most of his appetite for learning anything.
Other parents have asked me similar questions, and to one I wrote:
. . . With respect to your question, about how a parent could teach something like chemistry, there seem to be a number of possibilities, all of which people have actually done in one place or another. (1) The parent finds a textbook(s), materials, etc., and parent and child learn the stuff together. (2) The parent gets the above for the child, and the child learns it alone. (3) The parent or the child finds someone else who knows this material, perhaps a friend or neighbor, perhaps a teacher in some school or even college, and learns from them.
One mother wrote me some particularly challenging questions, to which I gave these answers:
My greatest concern is that I don't want to slant my children's view of life all through "mother-colored " glasses . . .
If you mean, determine your children's view of life, you couldn't do it even if you wanted to. You are an influence on your children, and an important one, but by no means the only one, or even the only important one. How they later see the world is going to be determined by a great many things, many of them probably not to your liking, and most of them out of your control. On the other hand, it would be impossible, even if you wanted to, not to have some influence on your children's view of life.
I also wonder if I can have the thoroughness, the follow-through demanded, the patience, and the continuing enthusiasm for the diversity of interests they will undoubtedly have.
Well, who in any school would have more, or even as much? I was a good student in the "best" schools, and very few adults there were even slightly concerned with my interests. Beyond that, you may expect too much of yourself. Your children's learning is not all going to come from you, but from them, and their interaction with the world around them, which of course includes you. You do not have to know everything they want to know, or be interested in everything they are interested in. As for patience, maybe you won't have enough at first; like many home-teaching parents, you may start by trying to do too much, know too much, control too much. But like the rest, you will learn, from experience mostly, to trust your children.
Most unschoolers seem to live on farms growing their own vegetables (which I'd like) or have unique life-styles in urban areas, and heavy father participation in children's education. What about suburbanites with modern-convenienced homes and fathers who work for a company 10 to 12 hours a day away from home? What differences will this make? Will unschooling work as well?
Well enough. You and your children will have to find out as you go along what differences they make, and deal with them as best you can. Once, people said that the suburbs were the best of all possible worlds in which to bring up children; now it is the fashion to say they are the worst. Both views are exaggerated. In city, country, or suburb, there is more than enough to give young people an interesting world to grow up in, plenty of food for thought and action. You don't have to have every resource for your children, and if you did, they wouldn't have enough time to make use of all of them. As for the father's involvement, it can certainly be helpful, but it is not crucial. Some of the most successful unschoolers we know of are single mothers.
What if the children want to go to school?
This is a hard question. There is more than one good answer to it, and these often conflict. Parents could argue, and some do, that since they believe that school can and probably will do their children deep and lasting harm, they have as much right to keep them out, even if they want to go, as they would to tell them they could not play on a pile of radioactive waste. This argument seems more weighty in the case of younger children, who could not be expected to understand how school might hurt them. If somewhat older children said determinedly and often, and for good reasons, that they really wanted to go to school, I would tend to say, let them go. How much older? What are good reasons? I don't know. A bad reason might be, "The other kids tell me that at school lunch you can have chocolate milk."
I'm concerned that someone might be eager to take us to court and take away our children.
The schools have in a number of cases tried - shamefully - to take children away from unschooling parents. I think there are legal counters to this, strategies that would make it highly unlikely that a court would take such action. And if worse came to worst, and a court said, "Put your children back in school or we'll take them away," you can always put them back in while you plan what to do next - which might simply be to move to another state or even school or judicial district.
I don't want to feel I'm sheltering my children or running away from adversity.
Why not? It is your right, and your proper business, as parents, to shelter your children and protect them from adversity, at least as much as you can. Many of the world's children are starved or malnourished, but you would not starve your children so that they would know what this was like. You would not let your children play in the middle of a street full of high-speed traffic. Your business is, as far as you can, to help them realize their human potential, and to that end you put as much as you can of good into their lives, and keep out as much as you can of bad. If you think - as you do - that school is bad, then it is clear what you should do.
I value their learning how to handle challenges or problems . . .
There will be plenty of these. Growing up was probably never easy, and it is particularly hard in a world as anxious, confused, and fear-ridden as ours. To learn to know oneself, and to find a life worth living and work worth doing, is problem and challenge enough, without having to waste time on the fake and unworthy challenges of school—pleasing the teacher, staying out of trouble, fitting in with the gang, being popular, doing what everyone else does.
Will they have the opportunity to overcome or do things that they think they don't want to do?
I'm not sure what this question means. If it means, will unschooled children know what it is to have to do difficult and demanding things in order to reach goals they have set for themselves, I would say, yes, life is full of such requirements. But this is not at all the same thing as doing something, and in the case of school usually something stupid and boring, simply because someone else tells you you'll be punished if you don't. Whether children resist such demands or yield to them, it is bad for them. Struggling with the inherent difficulties of a chosen or inescapable task builds character; merely submitting to superior force destroys it.
[PF, written in 2003] To these important questions one might add an important issue in today's economic climate.
Can two-income families homeschool?
My wife and I both work, and through the years we've found that we can arrange out schedules to accomodate homeschooling. Until recently, I would work at the office or work from home, usually form 9 A.M. to 5 P.M., and Day worked afternoons or evenings; this suited Day's theatrical lighting career with my daily business hours. Now Day works during the days teaching in public school while I work from home and do more of the driving and helping with the girls.
When our children were very young, and Day and I worked together at Holt Associates, they spent quite a bit of time in the office with us, particualrly when there were other children around them to play with. Our oldest daughter, Lauren, now sixteen, loved the office as a toddler. After "mom" and "dad," the next word she learned was "mail," which wasn't surprising as we spent so much time talking about "the mail" at work! Now, our daughters are involved in all sorts of activities of their own, and between those activities and the time they spend with friends, neighbors, relatives, and paid babysitters, they aren't with us at work as much.
One of the first things we noticed as our children got older was that they became increasingly involved in their own activities. There was less of a need to think of having someone "watch" them all the time and more of a need to think about scheduling. For instance, when Lauren went to gymnastics classes or when the homeschool drama club holds a rehearsal, it doesn't mean my wife and I need to be there, too. We're not the only ones involved in our children's homeschooling, and that has benefits for us as parents, as well as for our children. We don't let our kids do gym or drama in order to give us childcare while we work, but rather because this type of varied life is what homeschooling is for us. Parents can gently encourage a child's growth from dependence to independence as young adults; when kids are older they are often more able to get around on their own, to be by themselves at home or the library, to work with other adults. Try not to think of homeschooling in terms of your being home all day or needing parental supervision every minute, because homeschooling naturally encompasses many different activities, as I've described.
Some two-income families deliberately work split shifts (one works days, the other nights), work only during evenings and weekends, or have one partner work at home. The book The Four-thirds Solution: Solving the Childcare Crisis in America Today by Stanley Greenspan shows how two working parents can each work two-thirds of the time to free up time that they can spend with their children. The creativity and resourcefulness of people who want to homeschool is amazing—mothers on welfare as well as wealthy celebrities homeschool: If you want to, you can find a way.
To get a firsthand overview of what homeschooling can be like, read some of the recommended books in the back of this book. But to get a true feel for what homeschooling can be like for your family I strongly urge you to attend a homeschooling conference or support group meeting in your area; you may need to try several sources before you find one that suits your specific needs of homeschooling, but it will be well worth your effort. No only will get the latest information about homeschooling issues and events in your local area, you may also find kindred spirits as well as potential friends for your children.
Another question I am often asked is:
Can families with children who have special needs homeschool?
Not only can such families homeschool, they have also found that their special-needs children can flourish in home school. Homeschooling provides lots of one-on-one attention; lots of time to accomplish tasks other children can finish more quickly; and lots of opportunities to try using various therapies or medication if the one the child is currently using fail. Some school make a big deal about the lack of specialized training a parent may have for taking care of a special-needs child, sometimes unreasonably so. One parent I helped to get her special-needs child out of a well-regarded school program was a certified special-education teacher herself, and she was being told she couldn't provide her daughter with all the care she needed! This mom not only succeeded in homeschooling her special-needs daughter, but she feels their lives are better now that they are working so closely together.
This is a common reason why special-needs families decide to homeschool: They become worn out from their repeated attempts to get the services and attention their child needed and decide while they're waiting for the typical, unsatisfactory responses they could be working with their child themselves. Wendy Renish, who homeschools a child with autism and pervasive development disorder, wrote to Growing Wtihout Schooling:
With all the problems we were having getting her the right services in school, and spending time helping her to get ready for school, helping her with her homework, and helping her with social issues, we had no time for the one-on-one work she really needed.
Derrick Simpson, a single parent in Illinois who adopted a special-needs child from Ethiopia, writes:
I fought the system for several years to give him speech therapy. They refused to do it. They thought he had no speech issues . . .
When parents hit these breaking points with the school system, homeschooling can be liberating as well as frightening. Parents may be choosing to homeschool not as a well-considered option but as a desperate measure made under enormous pressure in order to find a better situation for their child. Fortunately, support for these families is growing, as well as understanding by some medical professionals that parents can be much more involved with special-needs children than is commonly accepted. Wendy Renish writes:
We had met Dr. Stanley Greenspan, a psychiatrist from Bethesda, Maryland, and author of The Challenging Child. He's one of the leading child development specialists in the world, and he believes that through work, a child's autistic behavior can be changed. He has a program, similar to the mirroring we had done, called "floor time." He believes that parents play the major role in helping special-needs children; yes, you do need medical professionals for some things—Rosie needs help with allergies, a hearing impairment, and occupational therapy. When it comes to the behavior, these intensive one-on-one programs take so much time that most of the work has to be done by the parents.
Several books and groups about homeschooling and special needs are listed in the resource section at the end of this book, particularly Homeschooling the Child with ADD (or Other Special Needs).
I must add this fantastic, new resource for homeschooling special-needs children, and I hope to add it to a future print edition of Teach Your Own.
Cindy Gaddis, a homeschooling parent, writes a blog about homeschooling special-needs children:
Her book, The Right Side of Normal: Understanding and Honoring the Natural Learning Path for Right-Brained Children (2012), is totally accessible and useful for parents just getting started or who have experience with homeschoolng special-needs children. I reviewed the book on my blog here.